‘Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street’ makes puppets of the Muppets

Image from Sesame Street
HBO Films/Courtesy

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

Few things are more universal than “Sesame Street.” Say “Kermit” and that green face and the voice of Jim Henson come into focus. The name Jim Henson may not ring a bell, but those who grew up on “Sesame Street” will recall the show’s reimagination of television’s worst qualities for good. Henson and the many others turned the addictive into the informative with unassuming patience — and “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” made sure to appropriate the nostalgia.

The documentary, from director Marilyn Agrelo, is billed as taking “audiences inside the minds and hearts of the ‘Sesame Street’ creators.” That’s a stretch. What you really get is a movie that harnesses the power of it true subject — “Sesame Street” — and redirects it at the viewer, with pleasant, insightful talking heads thrown in. By the end of the film, the combination of archival footage, interviews old and new and flubbed tapes are enough to provoke heartache for a show that this documentary confusingly presents as aged. 

Even as “boob tube,” which gets dropped in early on, seems dated next to today’s strife around the internet, “Street Gang” makes sure to remind viewers of the foundations of “Sesame Street,” noting that the issues of the 1960s feel as relevant then as now. As we exit an Oscars season that still couldn’t make diversity more than a chore, the zeitgeist that “Sesame Street” responded to — Vietnam, race in America, commercial indoctrination — shows an America not all too different from now.

Little of the film really takes us inside the minds of what was known in the show’s most early days — when it had seed money but little more than an idea — as the Children’s Television Workshop. Instead, what “Street Gang” does well is introducing viewers to what was already out there, in a rather eloquent form. At its core, the documentary retools our and the creators’ adoration for a beloved children’s show, delivering something that brings little new to the world’s understanding of “Sesame Street,” but reminds us of the love a few people had for a simple, revolutionary idea.

“Street Gang” can’t seem to stop hitting us over the head with that trivia. It’s long been known that “Sesame Street” was the first to blend television and education, and parts of the documentary are aggrandizing — the first sentence of the film talks about its ratings. Usually, these tidbits avoid mindlessness, rerouted to emphasize why the puppeteers were so passionate about their mission and becoming testaments to the vision of “Sesame Street.”

However, much of the controversies surrounding “Sesame Street” are glossed over. “Street Gang” addresses Roosevelt Franklin, a character meant to represent Black children that faced backlash for being one-dimensional, but it makes no mention of the debate of whether “Sesame Street” taught children to enjoy education or television, or the fact that “Sesame Street” is effectively locked behind a paywall today and inaccessible to many of the people it made a mission of reaching in the first place.

Still, while it doesn’t take a pause to examine the uncomfortable parts of its material’s legacy, “Street Gang” goes all-in on the makings of “Sesame Street” — to fractured effect. The documentary interviews the living creators and their family and friends; it dives into diversity and depression, Big Bird and Mississippi, morals and death. Persisting through that storied and wide-ranging history, the focus remains on the show, and that, not the documentary itself, is what makes you crack a smile.

Despite its failure to take viewers inside the hearts and minds of the “Sesame Street” creators, “Street Gang” tours the show with so-so execution and the all-time charm of its source. It’s not sensational, but it makes you long for a sensation — a hard thing for a film to do.

Dominic Marziali covers film. Contact him at [email protected].